A Tribute to Nelson Mandela

By on March 4, 2014
Dr. Pillay answering questions. Photo Credit: Allison Goins

Amandla!

Selvum Pillay, a UAB associate professor of Materials Science & Engineering, gave a tribute to Nelson Mandela  Friday night in Heritage Hall Building. The lecture was sponsored by the African-American Studies Department and the African American Faculty Association. It was the last event of UAB’s Black History Month.

A native of South Africa, Dr. Pillay has ceremonially eulogized Nelson Mandela for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) and Friday he followed suit by giving a personal tribute and recollection of Nelson Mandela and the Apartheid struggle he was intimately intertwined with.

Though of Indian heritage, Dr. Pillay identifies as a “black man.” As a person of color living in apartheid South Africa, he experienced the discriminatory system of racial segregation enforced by the National Party (NP) governments, the ruling party from 1948 to 1994. His experiences led to his joining of the Black Freedom Struggle.

“On December 5, 2013, a world lost a great man, Africa lost its greatest son, and the oppressed and downtrodden lost its greatest voice,” began Pillay in his lecture entitled “Nelson Mandela: From Terrorist to President to World Icon”.

Chronicling pivotal moments in Apartheid (an Afrikaans word literally meaning “apart-hood”) such as the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 in which 69 protesters were shot and killed by the police; the infamous Rivonia Trial in 1963-64 that sentenced Mandela to life imprisonment on Robben Island; and the Soweto Uprisings, a series of protests by an estimated 20,000 high school students in June of 1976 in reaction to Afrikaans being implemented as the standardized language in which 176 were reported dead. Pillay, describing the motivation of protest of the time, expressed that “we’d rather than live one day as a free men [and women] than rest of our lives as a second class human being.”

As a student in the 80s, he recalled being a part of many peaceful protests. Profoundly influenced by the works of South African activist-martyr Steve Biko, author of the campus-spawned Black Consciousness Movement, and who asserted that “Africa is for Africans,” Pillay described the climate of racial segregation, and how he aligned with the movement.

“There was something called the pencil test. They would place a pencil in your hair, and if the pencil stayed, you were Black, if it fell out, you were coloured.”

That testimony is concurrent with history, as the segregation system separated “white, coloured, Black, and Indian,” explained Pillay, “with White being at the top of the caste but Black being at the bottom of the caste, but really if you were non-white you were only a little better than the next.”

Mandela is said to have heralded a bloodless transition to democracy, but Pillay contends that “it was not a bloodless transition; hundreds of thousands died, though we did not deteriorate into war.”

“His sacrifice of patriotism,” Pillay said, “helped us to get up the next day and fight event thought they banned his images and his writings, he spoke to us through his sacrifice.”

Transitioning to present tense, Pillay elegantly declared that “we have only buried his mortal remains, but we have not buried his spirit, Madiba’s legacy will live on forever.”

After his lecture, Dr. Pillay held a brief Q & A session.

When asked to juxtapose state of racial tensions in Birmingham and South Africa, he responded that “[…] it’s still rather tenuous, but it’s almost no better than Birmingham.” Continuing his response, he stated that “the main difference between here and there is that it’s [racism] more out in the open of there, and people are moving forward.”

Pillay went on to say that “southern politeness prevents people from being direct.”

Pillay also remarked on his observations of subdued racism in the States, especially when among White co-workers, and the privilege that his ethnicity grants him in that “they feel safe” talking to him because he is Indian.

Answering a prompt that implored of the means of progression, he expressed his befuddlement of how some Whites tell Blacks in South Africa or America to “get over it.”

“You can never get over that, you can only learn to deal with it and move forward.”

Speaking to forward velocity, he articulated some of his concerns that affected the Black community in South Africa and Birmingham.

“Education is the key to success, it also remedies the economic gap that we see not only in the Black community, but in poor communities period. Welfare is hereditary, poverty is not. I grew up poor, my mother was a maid. Through education I was able to lift myself and family out of poverty.”

Furthering his point about the importance of education, he stated that the cost of education is developing to be a barrier for many, making the statement that he told an employer that “my complaint is not that I make too little, but that my coworkers make too much,” and this cost incurred makes education inaccessible to many.

In closing, he added that he never thought he saw the end of Apartheid or democratic elections in his lifetime.

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